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Germany's coal exit: first jobs, then the climate

Katharina Wecker
June 26, 2018

Germany's "coal commission" is starting to plan how the country is to give up coal mining. But it's already under fire for prioritizing the economy over the environment.

Arbeiter im Braunkohletagebau Profen bei Zeitz
Image: picture-alliance/W. Grubitzsch

No other country burns as much lignite as Germany. Around a quarter of German electricity comes from the carbon-heavy fuel, also known as brown coal.

It's cheap, it's mined domestically and it's responsible for around 20 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. If Germany is serious about its target of cutting its emissions to half what they were in 1990 by 2030, lignite has to go.

Government advisors have already warned that Germany can only meet its climate goals by shutting down the most inefficient — and therefore climate-damaging — plants by 2020.

Yet politicians have dithered. Now, a government-appointed commission is to take responsibility for planning the country's exit from coal, and setting a deadline to quit the dirty fuel for good. 

The government has appointed 31 individuals, including trade unionists, employers, scientists, environmentalists and people who live in areas where coal is mined.

Critics say the commission has taken on "monstrous proportions" that will cripple its ability to make decisions.

"Everyone wants to have a say but no one is responsible for actually delivering results," Michael Schäfer, climate expert at WWF, told DW.

Kohle Petition WWF
WWF presents the environment ministry with a petition urging government to get moving on the coal exitImage: WWF/D. Wöhlert

Industry over climate

Exactly what their mandate will be has been almost as controversial as the big questions it must address. The government has already postponed appointing the commission's leadership three times — to a chorus of criticism from all sides.

The Green party and environmental groups complain the commission's mandate prioritizes industry over the climate. Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU parties, on the other hand, argue it's only right that climate protection isn't allowed to trump economic concerns.

Infografik Arbeitsplätze im Braunkohleabbau DE

"The priority of the commission is structural change. That is important, and we totally support that, but we worry that it will be more important than climate protection," Tina Löffelsend, climate expert at the environment group Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), told DW.

"We shouldn't forget that protecting the climate and reaching the national climate goals are the main reason the commission was created," she added.

Strong coal unions
A recent study by Friends of the Earth Germany found that the country could shut down its dirtiest coal power plants and all its nuclear power stations at once, and still have a reliable energy supply.

What's holding the government back isn't so much the prospect of blackouts than mass layoffs from a sector that is strongly unionized, according to Sabrina Schulz, energy expert at the think tank E3G.

Around 20,000 people work in Germany's lignite industry. Compared to the 340,000 jobs in the renewables, that's a small number. But coal workers have traditionally been well organized in labor unions that have strong connections to political parties — particularly the conservatives' junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD).

"Traditionally, politicians have told the coal industry what they want to hear," Schulz told DW. "I don't want to say they are bought. But over the years, a system has developed and worked well. This tradition continues."

Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia,  all of which are home to lignite mines , have regional elections coming up next year. 

Politicians might very well be asking themselves, "Is this the right moment to tell people that lignite is over and they have no alternatives to offer?" Schulz says.

Deutschland Braunkohlekraftwerk in der Lausitz
Lignite-fired power plants in Brandenburg, located in the wider coal region of LusatiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

Last year, the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy set up working groups in Germany's four brown-coal regions and gave them two years to submit possible alternative industries.

Wider public in favor of coal exit

Quitting coal may not win votes in the regions that depend on it. But the wider German public is in favor.

According to a survey by the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, 75 percent of Germans want their government to set the ball rolling for a coal exit as soon as possible, and would even accept a slight increase in energy prices as a result. 

"The exit is not only urgently needed because of global warming but also supported by a majority in Germany," says Anike Peters, energy expert at Greenpeace, which commissioned the survey. "Many regard it as an opportunity to modernize the country."

"Chancellor Merkel should take the people's will seriously," Peters added.

Almost 100,000 Germans recently signed an online petition calling on their government to adopt an effective climate protection bill. In late May, environmental organization WWF presented the petition to the federal economy and environment ministries. 

Now everyone is waiting for the coal commission to start its work. It is expected to deliver preliminary results at the end of October.